Richard Haass on Trump's Foreign Policy and 'America First'

(Bloomberg View) -- Remember when Donald Trump's unlikely presidential victory meant a return to Republican isolationism of the 1920s and '30s? Or worse? Well, a funny thing happened on our way to the Coolidge administration: The guy who pledged to put America First has been pretty active about doing so, and putting U.S. blood and treasure on the line around the globe.

From the stepped-up fights against terrorists in the Middle East and Afghanistan to the brinkmanship with North Korea to the decision to send "defensive" weapons to Ukraine, the White House has belied the idea that the U.S. is best off turning its back on allies, enemies and the rest of the globe.

The question, of course, is whether this has been for the best. I don’t mean whether the Donald Trump Voter is chagrined that Donald Trump hasn't done exactly what he promised. That base, we are told, perhaps never took him literally, and probably hasn't been paying a whole lot of attention to special-forces troop levels in Rojava.    

But to look into the question of whether a globally active Trump administration is better than one with its head stuck in the sand, I talked this week with Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and author of one of the last year's most influential books on U.S. global policy, "A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order," which has just been released in paperback with a new afterword. Haass is a pillar of the foreign-policy establishment, but isn't a partisan with an ax to grind: He has worked at the Pentagon, State Department and White House in the Carter, Reagan and both Bush administrations. Here is an edited transcript of our chat.

Tobin Harshaw: So, we have made it through year one of the Trump Era, and the question being tossed around in foreign policy circles is, "Were things as bad as you expected?" I'm wondering if you think that is even the right question to be asking.

Richard Haass: It's a loaded way of asking. It's not a useful way, because so much of that depends upon one's expectations. We now have a year of evidence. It's better just to say, "Here's my take on it -- here's what I like and here is what gives me heartburn or worse." Otherwise you're playing off your own expectations.

TH: Exactly. So let's start on the bright side. If you had to pick one issue where you think the administration seems to be on the right track at this point, what would it be?

RH:I could choose two or three. I believe their efforts against ISIS in Iraq and Syria have clearly been successful.

TH: Would you consider those a continuation -- a slightly amped-up continuation -- of the Obama approach, as many people do?

RH: Essentially. Military commanders in the field were given greater discretion, perhaps greater encouragement, so they advanced at a quicker pace than many anticipated. Now the challenge is to cope with that success. How does one translate a battlefield victory into something that endures? And that's an area where the jury's still out. The administration hasn't yet produced a policy that builds on its accomplishments on the battlefield against ISIS.  

I would say a second good decision was the announcement a few weeks ago to provide Ukraine with defensive arms. It's something that should have happened years ago under the Obama administration. That actually was somewhat surprising because one might have thought that when considering an administration which, shall we say, has been reluctant to get crosswise with Russia, one might not have expected this decision. So I took this as a pleasant surprise.

TH: Indeed, and those two things are kind of related. People were concerned that this administration was going to go very soft on Putin, and it hasn't been that way. On the other hand, Trump came into office saying that there are issues on which we can work with Russia, Syria being the main one. Do you think the surprisingly hard line toward Moscow on other fronts is going to make it more difficult to work with the Russians on Syria?

RH: No, I think it was going to be hard to work with Russians on Syria regardless. I don't see that kind of linkage. There is some potential overlap between the U.S. and Russia -- I don't want to exaggerate it -- but some potential overlap in that the Russians don't want to see the Syria situation unravel to a point where they have to escalate their own involvement. I don't rule out the potential for some kind of diplomacy. But at the moment, I don't see the U.S. and Russia on the same page in Syria. Russia seems much more interested in consolidating government control over liberated areas. It seems to me that the U.S. and Russia are proving they can disagree for independent reasons in any number of theaters.

TH: Is there one other thing that you think is going well?  

RH: I think part of the North Korea strategy is going well. And I say "part." I think what's going well is the focus on it, which has translated into several resolutions in the UN Security Council and greater economic pressure and international isolation on North Korea.

Those are three areas, if I had to say, where I think the administration can legitimately point to some results.

TH: And now South Korean President Moon Jae-in has praised Trump for his "huge contribution" to making the Korean talks over the Olympics happen. Did that surprise you?  

RH: I took that as a sign that President Moon was looking to build some capital with President Trump. It still remains to be seen whether the agendas of the U.S. and South Korea are one and the same. Indeed, I'm somewhat concerned by these North-South talks because I worry that the North might try to suggest steps that would appeal to Seoul but that wouldn't put our concerns -- in particular, the nuclear warheads on long-range missiles -- at the top of the agenda.

I think we are making a mistake by not being at the table. There is much too much talk about preconditions of denuclearization. I would drop the precondition that North Korea has to commit to denuclearization, and I would simply press for sorts of interim arrangements that would leave us better off.

TH: Right. There's no question of Kim Jong Un meeting that precondition. So you agree that Kim is trying to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington?

RH: I don't think you have be Henry Kissinger to draw that conclusion.

TH: Well, I'm certainly not Henry Kissinger. In the new afterward to your book, you call Trump -- and, by extension I guess, his Twitter feed -- the "principal disrupter" the world order. Can you just explain briefly what you mean by that?

RH: It wasn't actually in relationship to his tweeting. Just as an aside, I believe his tweeting is often counterproductive -- and that's not an argument against using Twitter or social media. I think in principle it could be useful. But I believe any tweet needs to be considered, shall we say, and the president needs to be mindful of how it's read in multiple locations, and not just domestically among his base. He has to ask himself whether, for example, a confrontational tweet with Pakistan or Iran is the best way to advance U.S. interests. The president and the White House need to take tweets every bit as seriously as they would any other presidential written or oral statement. This is an area where I take issue with the chief of staff, General John Kelly. A tweet is a 21st-century White House statement. And I would treat it accordingly.

TH: So what did you mean?

RH: The reason I called the president a disrupter is that he came into office 70 years after World War II, 25-plus years after the end of the Cold War. Like any president, he didn't come into office with a blank slate -- he entered with an enormous inheritance of relationships with institutions, policies and the like. And in my view he is much too quick to pull the U.S. out of various institutions and various agreements, and he's been much too quick to question the value of allies and alliances.

So, in the course of a year, he has essentially changed the relationship between the U.S. and the world where for 70 years we have been the principal provider, or girder, of international order. Suddenly now we have someone who's taken us out of the Paris agreement, pulled us out of TPP, is threatening to take us out of Nafta, is boycotting the global migration talks, is decertifying the Iran nuclear agreement, is raising doubts about the U.S. commitment to NATO allies and Article 5. And that's not the whole list. What this president has done is remove the presumption of continuity in American foreign policy. He has raised major questions about American predictability and even reliability. And I think on balance that is unfortunate.

TH: To talk specifically about Article 5, a lot of people were upset that he didn't initially reiterate U.S. support for it. But he came around to that afterward and, going all the way up to what we talked about with Ukraine, he seems to have taken a much stronger line about potential Russian disruption. Do you think the European allies are feeling more comfortable with him today?

RH: The short answer is no. Europe is the part of the world where U.S. relations have deteriorated the most. And it's not just the lack of a statement initially on Article 5. A lot of it is also about the Paris agreement. It's also the European unhappiness with what they've seen this president do, his attacks on independent judiciary, on the media. This is a Europe for the most part that's liberal in the political but also the classical sense of the word, and they see a president that is largely in their eyes illiberal. Their problem with Donald Trump is not just over particular policies, it's more fundamental. The Europeans really do believe in a liberal world order: a world of laws and institutions, of arrangements like the EU and the UN, of international treaties like the Iran agreement, the Paris agreement, of multilateralism. And they see in President Trump someone who essentially doesn't buy into that. It didn't help also that the president was sympathetic to Brexit, that he seemed to indicate a certain preference for the National Front opponent to President Macron in France.

The only place which probably competes in terms of the deterioration of relationships is Latin America, where with Mexico and others there is tremendous unhappiness over immigration, the lack of attention, trade.  

TH: One region you haven't mentioned is the Gulf. Do you think that Trump's going all-in with the Saudis has been misguided?

RH: It's probably the part of the world where U.S. relations with several governments is most improved. I would say with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Israel …

TH: Not Qatar …

RH: Not Qatar. Decidedly not. And not Iran.

I think to the others it's a little bit of a relief that someone other than Barack Obama is in the White House. He was not seen as a friend by this Israeli government. And he was not seen as dependable by the Saudis after the fiasco with the Syrian red line. So the president has cast his lot to a large extent with the Saudis and the Israelis.

My own view is that current policy is too unconditional. I understand that people are sympathetic or intrigued by what the crown prince is doing in Saudi Arabia in terms of domestic political reform. Obviously, Saudi Arabia needs it, and one wishes him well in that pursuit. But there's got to be concerns about some of the excesses, shall we say, inside Saudi Arabia. There's got to be concerns about Saudi foreign policy, whether it's in Yemen or in Lebanon. I'm just skeptical that it's all going to result in this enormous payoff which is going to resolve the Palestinian issue. I just don't see it. And, ironically enough, I think the president's decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital has worked against his own policy, because I think it's made it more difficult for the Saudis to be seen cozying up to us.  

TH: A lot of people in your world are surprised that Rex Tillerson is still around as secretary of state. Many of them, people like Eliot Cohen, have urged him to resign. What do you think of his tenure there?

RH: Full disclosure: I called on him to resign the moment the president tweeted that Tillerson was wasting his time pursuing a North Korean diplomatic outcome when he was over talking to his counterparts in China. I didn't see how a secretary of state could succeed in such a context. This is about as far as you could imagine from, say, the relationship Jim Baker had with Bush 41.

So I guess I'd make two points about Rex Tillerson. One is that he inherited a difficult situation, given this president's policy predilections. In many ways Donald Trump is a radical when it comes to American foreign policy -- he doesn't buy into a lot of his inheritance. Second of all, the tweets and the like make it very hard for any secretary of state to function because no one knows if the secretary is speaking for the president. And so it raises major problems for his authority. I think also the fact that you've got somebody like Jared Kushner operating out of the White House is a further problem. It raises questions as to standing.

On top of that, Rex Tillerson had other disadvantages. He came into the job with knowledge of the world but not knowledge of American foreign policy. Those are different. He had no experience in governing. And he then put what I believe was the misguided emphasis on reducing staffing and resourcing of his department and to focus on reorganizing. I'm not going to say the State Department couldn't use some reorganizing and slimming. But to make that a priority at a time you're dealing with everything from North Korea and the rise of China to conflicts in the Middle East to chaos in Venezuela to the administration pulling itself out of TPP and Paris is seriously misplaced. My bottom line is that he inherited an extremely difficult situation, and he succeeded in making it more difficult.

TH: So it's been roughly a year since "World in Disarray" came out. One of your main themes in the book was what you call World Order 2.0. Do you want to just briefly describe what you mean by that, and then talk about how the tumult of the past year has played into it?

RH: The world order, such as it has been for the last few centuries, has been based upon the idea that sovereign states are the basic building blocks of international relations, and that sovereignty is to be respected. History teaches us that you need sovereignty to be respected, and also a balance of power -- so that would-be aggressors are not tempted to violate borders through force.

My argument is that all this is still necessary. Any doubt about it being necessary was eliminated by Saddam Hussein going into Kuwait or Russia going into Ukraine. We still need respect for borders. My point is simply that while it's necessary, it's no longer sufficient. We now live in a world in which things that go on inside the borders of countries need to be on the international agenda, because they have the potential to affect us negatively.

And by that I mean what we learned on 9/11 -- that terrorists holing up in Afghanistan could kill 3,000 people in the U.S. We're now dealing with a North Korea that's developing missiles and nuclear weapons inside its territory. Climate change, by definition, is a situation where things that emanate from one country affect others. We learned with Zika and Ebola that disease outbreaks don't respect borders. We saw with the Russian interference in our elections that cyber-activities emanating from the territory of one country can be a real threat to another.

At this point in history, given all these manifestations of globalization, our foreign policy and international relations need to deal with this more broadly. They need to deal with the reality that because what goes on inside one country's territory can affect life and prosperity and security inside another, we can't approach borders or sovereignty as absolute or as hands-off. We need this concept of sovereign obligations in addition to rights; that sovereign states need to accept and fulfill obligations not to allow their territory to be used in ways that harm or potentially harm other countries. And I would argue that increasingly this must be the guiding principle of foreign policy, or we are all going to pay an enormous price for what evolves in this global world of ours.

One of the things I didn't foresee was that we would elect this president and bring into office an administration so hostile to this idea. It's hard to think of a pair of ideas more at odds than "America First" and sovereign obligation. And it's one of the reasons that the Europeans are so unhappy with this presidency. The Europeans actually accept the idea of sovereign obligation. It turns out the idea is quite popular over there.

TH: However, it's probably not such a popular concept in China, either.

RH: China's more mixed. China likes the idea of sovereign rights when it comes to organizing their politics as they see fit, and their economics. But they may grudgingly come to understand certain things differently in the area of climate or disease. China is a country fairly integrated into the world. It is more global. Yet China is uncomfortable with this idea because they worry it will constrain their freedom, politically and economically, to do what they believe they need to do to maintain political stability and cohesion. Vladimir Putin is worried about it as well, for similar reasons. So sovereign obligation is an idea, I would say, whose time has come in terms of the objective realities. It's not an idea whose time has come in terms of the actual politics.

TH: I wanted to mention another book that got a lot of attention last year, Graham Allison's "Destined for War." There has been a lot of talk about the Thucydides Trap. Do you see conflict between the U.S. and China as inevitable?

RH: Not even close. I've worked for four presidents, and I've concluded that almost nothing is inevitable. History is to a significant extent the result of the interaction of personalities and ideas. And so I don't believe war between the U.S. and China is in any way inevitable, and it's well within the province of diplomacy and statecraft to avoid it.

I'm not saying it's inconceivable. Don't get me wrong. But I think each side has major reasons for wanting to avoid war. It is a much worse 21st century if China and the U.S. are at loggerheads. Not only would it be costly if it ever spills over into conflict, but we won't be in a position to deal with all the challenges out there, whether it's North Korea or climate change or an open world economy or what have you.

I think one of the principal goals of both U.S. and Chinese leader for decades to come will be to make sure that this sort of deterioration in U.S.-Chinese relations doesn't materialize.  

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tobin Harshaw writes editorials on national security, education and food for Bloomberg View. He was an editor with the op-ed page of the New York Times and the paper's letters editor.

To contact the author of this story: Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net.

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